It could be that you are a little confused about where I’m actually living while all this work gets done on my house. You are not the only one, I’m living a confusing life right now.
It just so happens that, up the street from my house sits the James Blake House, aka the oldest house in Boston, built in 1661. Actually, it’s not a coincidence at all, since this part of Dorchester was where colonists from England set up their little village. Mr. Blake was a neighbor of Mr. Jones, the person who first built a house on what’s now my little corner lot. But that’s a blog post for another day.
Different houses, same neighborhood. I’m currently responsible for both.
The coincidence was that, just when it became clear that my house was going to need a much more extensive renovation than I banked on, the James Blake House was between caretakers. Through the historic house circles which I now find myself in, I ended up becoming the temporary caretaker for the Blake House, which is owned by the Dorchester Historical Society. This gave me a convenient place to stay, just a 10 minute stroll down the street so that I can pick up my mail, empty the dehumidifier, and harass my contractor on a daily basis.
Part of my job at the Blake House is to give a tour once a month, on the third Sunday. Here are the kinds of things you will learn if you come to the tour.
This is an artist’s drawing of what the Blake House probably looked like originally. Note the triple windows and the two gables in front:
The Blake House is a rare American example of West Country [English] timber framing. Apparently most of the early carpenters who made the journey from England were from the East. Here’s an amazing model of the Blake House timber frame:
Contrary to popular belief, I enjoy creature comforts here such as electric lighting. This is a big improvement over my own house at present.
Of course there are many opportunities for old house jokes, like how modern my 1804 house is going to feel after living here. I find them all very funny. Keep laughing, go on.
I keep a musket at the ready, just in case.
And no, I don’t have to cook over the fire, in fact there are no fires allowed in the oldest house in Boston. Not candles, not incense, and definitely not roaring fires in the hearth. I have met some previous caretakers, though, and apparently back in the 80s this house was heated primarily with a wood stove. Now there’s an oil-burning furnace and forced-air system.
And look! Stainless steel!
The massive timbers are oak. Those trees started growing in the early 15th century.
One fun thing I do at the Blakey is project movies onto the plaster walls. I’ve turned the spare room into a little movie theater. Here is my cat, Ebeneezer, watching Harry Potter. It’s fun to watch movies like this in what’s essentially a medieval building. It’s like you’re right there in the Leaky Cauldron.
One thing you might not see on the tour is the attic. Partly because there is a janky stair that I’m afraid someone might fall through, and partly because I have an agreement with the ghost that lives up there that I won’t go up there if she doesn’t come down here. Here is what you would see if you ventured into the attic:
It looks like the inhabitant of this room left her nightie on the bed and went about her day. I try not to think about it.
“The Blakey”, as the neighbors call it, is a cozy and pleasant space, 3 seasons out of the year. However, I have now experienced all 4 seasons at the Blakey, including two of the snowiest winters we’ve had for many years, while I am responsible for shoveling out two houses. Just luck, I suppose.
In addition to two houses to shovel out in the winter, I have had two yards to mow in the summer, and two yards to rake in the fall. But you won’t find me complaining.
Here is my Mom helping with the end of year leaf cleanup. Great work Ma! Now let’s do the other house!
Out in front, what look like grave stones are actually mile markers. One says 4 miles to Boston, and the other says 6 miles to Boston. That’s how you can tell they both weren’t here originally. Prudence, my other cat, is not impressed.
I let the weeds get away from me a bit last summer, but only partially out of exhaustion. I wanted to see what all these plants were around the garden. Turns out someone had planted quite a few medicinal plants, including motherwort, comfrey, feverfew, and lemonbalm. There were also mugwort and burdock volunteering around the yard.
I was very curious about this plant I didn’t recognize at first:
It turned out to be soapwort! A plant that you can make a gentle soap out of. Apparently some textile preservationists still use it on old fabrics. I put my little sister to work harvesting it:
And drying it:
And separating the flowers and leaves from the stems:
I also got a little excited about my three sisters garden. Here it is in early summer. Miss Zipp’s class from Edward Everett Elementary school came for a visit, and they already knew about the three sisters, and how the beans grow up the stalks of the corn. You don’t see the beans yet, because the corn was getting a head start.
And again a little later on. I grew flint corn, red kuri squash, and scarlet runner beans. The yield was impressive for such a tiny plot. It turns out the next door neighbor Sarah had donated the compost for this little garden bed. Nice work Sarah!
Next door is a neglected orchard with apple, pear, peach, plum, and apricot trees – varieties chosen for their historical interest. One day when I’m not renovating a house I’ll come back and give those trees a good pruning. At one point, this part of Dorchester was a rural farming village with pastures, orchards, and fields. And from the Blake house, it still kind of feels like that.
Here are Prudence and Ebeneezer keeping a look out for squirrels. I got them when I moved in here and named them after people who used to live in the house. Now I walk around calling for Ebeneezer and Prudence, and I’m afraid one of these days my cats’ namesakes might answer me.
It’s a pretty good life. But a very strange diversion. I could get comfortable here, if I wasn’t so anxious to get comfortable in my own house!